As part of the programme of events for International Women’s Day 2019 WRDA attended a conference on the 8th March. The conference focussed on research into self-managed abortions in Northern Ireland using pills and how the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. It began with Professor Sally Sheldon from the Law School at the University of Kent introducing the law around abortion pills. She highlighted the criminal laws which currently operate in Northern Ireland; the Offences against the Person Act 1861, Rex v. Bourne 1938 and finally the DHSSPSNI Guidance for HSC professionals on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland 2016; all of which allow abortion only where the life of the mother is threatened.
Professor Sheldon discussed how self-managed abortions create challenges for existing legal frameworks and essentially ‘how can the state control swallowing?’ it was also argued that criminal prohibitions cannot be justified on the basis of women’s health. The supplying of abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland is more frequently coming from two online collectives with reputable suppliers and accurate information, which operate legally in their base countries. EU free movement provisions can be used as an argument to protect access to abortion pills. One of the collectives reported supplying pills to 1,748 women on the island of Ireland in 2016.
Abortion pills are effective, often easy to obtain and are unlikely to result in complications and therefore can be used without a third party. The criminal prohibitions associated with abortion are difficult to enforce in the case of pills because it is hard for prosecutors to confirm and prove pills have been taken. These prohibitions actually impede public health goals and ignore the evidence of the safety of telemedical abortion services. The current law creates conditions of isolation and secrecy which can be a deterrence from seeking professional healthcare. Prosecutions in NI are selective, indicative of the fact that the law in its current state is unenforceable.
There was also a focus on trends in abortion statistics and public attitudes. The trends show that the number of women accessing abortions in England and Wales has been steadily declining from 1343 in 2007 to peak at 919 in 2017 and of those travelling 66% underwent a surgical procedure rather than a medical one, probably due to the delay in planning and receiving care. The trends also demonstrate that for many women travelling abroad is simply not an option for many reasons e.g.) situations of domestic abuse or caring responsibilities.
The most robust survey of public attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland is the NI life and times survey. The representative sample of 1200 revealed strong support for abortion reform overall, especially in cases of severe medical illness or threat to the mother’s physical or mental health. There was very little support for criminalisation, with 70% of participants believing abortion is a matter of regulation not criminal law. Those in support of criminalisation are statistically likely to be members of the Democratic Unionist Party, Attend church at least once per month, and are less likely to have a degree. There was similarity in the views of men and women and of Catholics and Protestants respectively.
The CEDAW Committee has previously challenged the UK government with state non-compliance regarding reproductive rights on several occasions (1999, 2008, and 2013) however in 2010, there was a submission to the CEDAW committee under CEDAW Optional Protocol to hold an inquiry into access to abortion in the jurisdiction. It was granted and in 2018, the results were published. The inquiry stated that the ‘UK can’t invoke internal agreements e.g. Belfast agreement to justify its failure to revise NI laws that violate CEDAW’.
When Participants were asked why they had sought an abortion, 4 out of 5 participants gave at least one reason and 55% gave more than one reason. Another question involved the positives and negatives of seeking a self-managed abortion, these included: being at home, not having to travel, not having to take time off work or rearrange caring responsibilities. Negatives were; the fear of the unknown, the pain and the fact that it is illegal here.
Overall, the findings of this research were supportive of the calls to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. They found that there is an urgent need for authorities here to ensure that all women know they can access medical assistance without fear of the police becoming involved. The illegality of abortion doesn’t act as a deterrent but is acutely damaging to women’s physical and mental health. Criminalisation is also not compatible with other social policy developments here e.g. lack of free childcare. The research also found that there will always be women who can’t travel for an abortion. As a result, the two online collectives previously mentioned are putting the power into the hands of the service user by providing more than just a pill (advice and support).
Article by Caitlín Miskimmon (WRDA Intern)
I knew from a young age that I was destined to go into a technical career. I’d always shown a particular interest in science and maths and hated languages and art with a passion. I loved problem solving and playing with my brother’s Lego and Meccano and I frequently transported my Barbie around in an action man army Jeep and motorcycle. When picking my school subjects I didn’t need to think much about my choices and settled on maths, chemistry, physics and English.
I looked into what to study and was drawn to Chemical Engineering and I started my course at Heriot Watt in 1998. I loved the course and graduated in 2003 with a first class MEng in Chemical Engineering with Pharmaceutical Chemistry. I then began my career with Pfizer in Kent within the engineering department. I started with a naivety that being female wouldn’t make any difference, but the difference was there.
It started in my work placements where I remember an operator asking me why I was studying engineering anyway as I should be getting married and having kids and looking after my husband. I saw it in my early days as a graduate engineer where I was treated differently to the male graduate I started with. The difference in treatment didn’t come from a bad place, but I simply had to work harder to engage technically with male engineers. There is a certain look a man gives a woman when they can engage in discussions of a technical nature. I’ve found also that male engineers would be more helpful towards me than my male colleague. Kind of like an engineering version of holding a door open for a lady, but in many ways there was an undertone of them wanting to do things for me instead of engaging me like an equal.
I was very lucky to have a fantastic female mentor who helped me gain my chartered engineer status. She was an extremely competent engineer with a great grasp of technical concepts. She was very straight and detailed her expectations firmly. Her behaviour in a man would be seen as succinct and assertive, however being a woman there were comments on how big her balls were and how demanding she was. I have no doubt these comments were due to her gender.
I progressed well within my role at Pfizer and worked on some very high profile projects. I led teams to specify and buy equipment, some of which was completely bespoke technology. My teams were always completely male. The vendors I worked with were also exclusively male, apart from one project where there was a woman who was responsible for compiling the documentation. I used to take teams to the factories all over the world to test the equipment before it was shipped and I’d lead the opening meeting and then the testing activities. Although the vendors were always very professional and I enjoyed the interactions a lot, it was clear they were not used to a woman leading the customer team. I remember going to a workshop to conduct some testing and seeing their project manager going round taking down all the mucky calendars and telling the men in the fabrication workshop to not swear because there was a lady in. Mansplaining is also something I’m very familiar with.
I moved to Northern Ireland 8 years ago and work as an engineering manager for a pharma company. It’s a progressive company and there are actually more women on the senior management team than men. I’ve found this to make a major difference in people’s expectations of women in the workplace as technical women are more the norm. Since moving to this position I have had 2 children and I’ve experienced the difficulties of being a working mum. The difficulty of being excluded from production areas due to being pregnant, the difficulty of having to step back to take maternity leave, the difficulty of returning to work as a breastfeeding mother, the difficulty of balancing a stressful and demanding job with children. I have not been able to travel since having children due to me being the main care giver and on the short day trips I have done, I have had to broach the topic of where I could express milk.
Becoming a mother has impacted my ability to work as effectively as I once did. I cannot easily stay late to finish something off, I am in a constant sleep deprived state, I have to take time off if one of my boys are sick, and I carry the bulk of the emotional baggage associated with having children. I am the one who has to remember the school stuff and doctors’ appointments and odd sock day. I am the one who has been financially penalised for taking maternity leave, dropping to statutory maternity pay and losing bonus money. I am lucky to work for a very proactive employer who understands the demands of a family, but it is still a difficult balancing act. I do know other female engineers who have had some real struggles with employers being flexible when they have had children. I think the fact it is such a male dominated area means that it isn’t the norm for their employees to have the bulk of the childcare burden. It is not as common for dads to be the ones taking time off for sick children or doctors trips so a woman working in a male dominated environment can be seen negatively for this.
I work as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ambassador to promote the subjects to children. I have a special interest in promoting the subject to girls as the uptake is very low. It has saddened me on many an occasion that girls assume they can’t be an engineer purely because they are a girl. This is ingrained in society from a young age about what boys do and what girls do. STEM toys are heavily marketed at boys, if children have parents who work in STEM it’s more often the dad, STEM is not typically discussed as an option for many girls. I’ve seen many girls studying maths and chemistry and physics and biology and when I ask them what they think they’d like to do STEM is not even mentioned, despite them obviously showing a natural ability in these subjects.
The image of a dirty engineer in a boiler suit and hard hat as a male is so ingrained in society’s view that it can be difficult for girls to see their place in this field. I remember my 5 year old having a discussion with a lady in the queue in a supermarket one afternoon and she asked him what he’d like to be when he grew up. He replied he’d like to be an engineer. Her automatic response was to say that was a great job and she then asked if his daddy was an engineer. I loved how perplexed he looked at this stage and he swiftly corrected her that it was in fact his mummy that was an engineer. I really hope he will be a generation that will not blink at the sight of a woman donning a hard hat, or talking to them in a technical manner. I also hope that it will be a generation that will make the workplace more adaptable to women in general to make it easier to have children and work.
Things are changing and women are forging a path for more women to come into technical careers and that is a great thing. I have worked with female engineers and scientists and they bring amazing skills to the table. Let’s keep teaching our children not to be restricted by what society thinks we should do and encourage them to do something they love.
This blog piece was written by Julie Thompson, a chartered engineer, STEM ambassador and mother of two sons.
3… 2… and… IT’S CHRIIISTMAASSS! Well, almost. The big day is only 18 sleeps away and it can’t have escaped you that Christmas is everywhere. We’ve had Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and I, for one, have already put my tree up and had more than a few mince pies. Maybe you’re like me and you absolutely love the whole season (probably not exactly like me, I’m a grown adult who will be voluntarily sporting antlers throughout much of December), or maybe you’re not feeling excited at all, just pressured, anxious or a bit down. Either way, this blog is for you, it’s for all of us, a set of general guidelines to get us from here to Christmas with a little bit more peace and joy. Here’s hoping.
#1 – Take Care of You and Yours
This one’s pretty simple, and it will mean something different for almost everyone reading. Look after yourself and the people around you, don’t buy into anything that brings you more trouble than you feel it’s worth, and make sure to prioritise the things you need. Increasingly, and especially for the women who, for the most part, are making Christmas happen, the whole season can be just a rush of stress that ends up in total exhaustion by the time the school holidays start. We would all do well to remember that competitive gifting, cooking and prepping need not be what Christmas is all about, and to reject the pressure of a “perfect Christmas”. Martin Lewis talks sense about this, advising that striving for the unattainable perfect day, whether at Christmas, or when planning a wedding or any other big event, will probably just lead to debt, disappointment, or both. Perfect days just don’t happen, and we all know this really, in spite of the advertising that tries to make us feel differently. Your Christmas day doesn’t have to look like anything in particular, as long as it works for you, so say no to too much pressure and too much money spent. If you’re celebrating Christmas this year, just try to honour whatever it means to you, and enjoy those things on your own terms.
You can watch Martin Lewis talking about unnecessary gift-giving and the pressure that goes along with it here, and consider releasing yourself and your loved ones from any obligations you can’t meet.
#2 Do What Good You Can
Much of the messaging and marketing around Christmas would have us believe that everyone is simply having a wonderful time (to paraphrase a Beatle), with family, loved ones, too much food and a general atmosphere of comfort and joy. But again, we know this isn’t the case. There are many people in need at this time of year, and we can all channel the spirit of giving into making a change, however small it might be, to honour the true spirit of Christmas.
Why not consider supporting these organisations with your time or money this Christmas?
And bear in mind that this doesn’t have to mean volunteering or making financial donations, we all know free time and money can be hard to come by at this time of year. Instead, it could be as simple as giving a little extra thought and care to those around you. If this is someone’s first Christmas since losing someone important, or you just know it’s a particularly tough time for them, for whatever reason, check in and see if there’s anything you can do to make it easier on them, and let them know that you’re there. And please, of course, extend this same compassion and care to yourself, if Christmas is hard, do whatever you need to do to make it easier, even if that means doing nothing at all…
#3 Understand That Everybody’s Christmas is Different
If Christmas really is the season of love and understanding, and I believe Shaky was on to something there, then we should all try to extend those things to everyone in our lives, whether their Christmas looks like ours or not. If you have a friend, or a colleague who, like me, goes a bit Christmas crackers and starts getting excited in September, make allowances for their daft behaviour, Christmas can really come to mean a lot when life gets tough, and I think that’s okay. Likewise, all of us elves need to bear in mind that there are plenty of good reasons why people don’t engage with Christmas, and forced fun is no fun at all, so don’t try to wrap your colleagues in tinsel and make them “get in the spirit”. Instead show everyone the respect of letting them do this time of year however they want to, and make everyone feel welcome to join in, or not. Both are fine choices.
However you spend the season WRDA hopes you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Blog by WRDA volunteer Lauren Donnelly
TRIGGER WARNING: This blog contains details of a sexual assault and the medico/judicial process following it.
2018 has been a tough year for women generally and for sexual assault survivors particularly. The #MeToo movement, The Rugby Rape Trial, Bret Kavanagh and the recent rape trial in the Republic of Ireland where the victim’s pants were used by the defence to suggest consent have all been difficult for survivors. This blog has been submitted by a women who hopes sharing her experience will stop others going through the same thing.
If you have been affected by sexual assault here are some organisations that can help.
Nexus: Nexus NI offer services and support to people who have been affected by sexual violence in any form, and our services are delivered across Northern Ireland. https://nexusni.org/
The Rowan: The Rowan is the regional Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) for Northern Ireland. http://therowan.net/
Women’s Aid: Women’s Aid is the lead voluntary organisation in Northern Ireland addressing domestic and sexual violence and providing services for women and children. They have a 24 hour helpline 0808 802 1414. https://www.womensaidni.org/about-us/womens-aid/
To find out more about how to make a report of sexual violence to the PSNI and what happens when you do please visit https://www.psni.police.uk/crime/sexual-violence-and-abuse/
I was seriously sexually assaulted when I was 15 by a 35 year old man. We were on a group trip together. I’d chosen to sleep in the hall next to his wife, my friend and he slept on the other side of me. I felt safe sleeping there because they were my friends. I was asleep when the assault started. I woke up feeling confused. It took me a while to understand what was happening. I was frozen, not quite inside my body as I lay there still, with my eyes open in the dark. When he was finished he asked me if I had come. I lay there numb, unsure how to process my first ever sexual experience.
The next morning I sat with him and had breakfast. He joked with the others like nothing had happened. I struggled to look his wife, my friend, in the eyes. So full of guilt and repulsed at myself for what I had done with her husband. I could not believe how much I had betrayed her. I travelled back home in the car with them, quiet in the back; listening to the Cranberries, disgusted with myself. Numb.
I made the mistake of confiding in a friend who told another so I had to tell my friend what had happened. I had to admit to what I had done with her husband, to a woman I loved and admired. She believed me and then my life spiralled out of control. I was made to tell my parents and go to the police. I was taken into the fancy victim room, where I was interviewed by a male and female police officer. I sat on the floral sofa, looking out the window past the floral curtains, designed I imagine to make the experience less horrific. It did not. I was made to tell my story three times. To tell these 2 strangers about my first sexual experience. They asked me if I was a virgin. They seemed happy when I said I was, something that couldn’t be used against me in court. I was then taken to the hospital where I had to have an examination. The second man to ever touch me was the middle aged police doctor, whilst the other male police doctor and a nurse watched. I lay there naked, covered by a gown and again I spread my legs. I lay there looking at the tray of instruments they had wheeled in, petrified at what they were for. I lay there as they examined me, and took photographs of my vagina, as they opened me up with a speculum and took swabs. I lay there as the second doctor came closer to look at the grazing, a bright light shining on me. I lay there numb and exposed again whilst they collected their evidence. I lay there.
My abuser pleaded guilty to indecent assault of a minor, sparing me a trial where my sexual experience and what I was wearing would have been discussed. He received a one year suspended sentence. I received a much longer and tougher one.
It’s been over 20 years since my assault. I’ve gone to university, got a good career, met a wonderful man who I married and had 2 sons in that time. I spent my teens and 20s with the trauma and guilt and disgust at myself buried down so deeply I didn’t even know it was there. Its presence was more subtle, showing itself as self-loathing and disgust at myself.
I started my journey to healing in my late 20s. I worked with a fantastic lady who helped me tap into what my unconscious mind was hiding from me. What I felt about myself. How incredibly guilty I felt for letting him do it, for not screaming, for telling him I was ok, for hurting my friend, for hurting my family, for everything I’d put them through. I worked through these feelings in what was an extremely difficult time. Memories came back to me that I’d hidden and I had to relive the time over and over again. Eventually though I worked through a lot of the negative feelings and developed a way to love myself again. To value myself. To stop blaming myself. It’s still a work in progress but I think the bulk of the guilty feelings have gone. I’m beginning to understand that he groomed me. I can look objectively at the way he treated me like an adult, the slaps on the bum, the dirty jokes, the sitting next to me and feeling my thigh, the pulling me to sit on his knee. These were all done in public, in front of his wife at times, in front of others. All accepted. Socially normal behaviour. Boys being boys.
I am still healing. Writing details of the assault still makes takes me back there. Details are so vivid it feels like it could have been yesterday. I’m still on my journey as a survivor. For now I’m angry. So, very, very angry. Angry at him, for stealing my innocence and scarring me so deeply I worry I’ll never fully recover. Angry at her for staying with him. Angry at the judicial system for his sentence. Angry at the way I was processed. Angry at having to share my story with a male officer. Angry at the fact I was examined by 2 male doctors when I was so very raw and hurting, physically and mentally. Angry at the fact they returned my nightie and pants months after, a reminder of the attack. Angry that I can’t have a dental examination without feeling violated. Angry that I’ve carried this load around for such a long time. Angry my parents and family have had to carry the same burden. Angry that so many women experience sexual assaults and inappropriate behaviour from men. Angry that I don’t feel able to challenge behaviour from a colleague at work calling me darling and sweetheart. Angry that we teach girls how to not be raped or assaulted. Angry at the porn industry for objectifying women and teaching men that we don’t deserve respect. Angry at a society where a group of 14 year old girls are discussing in public about how they are all having anal sex with their boyfriends. Angry at revenge porn and social media. Angry that women are called sluts and whores. Angry that women are having to aspire to be fake and perfect. Angry that women’s bodies are objectified and used to sell things. Angry that a rape case of a 27 year old accused of raping a 17 year old is acquitted and part of the evidence from the defence is that she was probably open to sex because she was wearing a lacy thong. Angry a group of sex traffickers who literally snatch women off of the street, beat and rape them and then sell them to the highest bidder were given a 3 year prison sentence. Angry at the victim blaming and shaming of women involved in public figure rape cases and the societal responses to the case. Angry at the unchallenged behaviour of men behaving inappropriately towards women. Angry at the media for their portrayal of women and sensationalising of issues relating to women. Angry at the misogyny in the workplace and the inequalities. Angry that so many women will carry the burden of sexual assault their whole lives. Angry at the poor resources to help these women. Angry that I feel anxious about raising my sons in this world and the burden on me to teach them about consent and respect.
I’m angry, but I’m still hopeful. I’m hopeful we can change things. Hopeful we can raise our children to understand consent and respect. Hopeful we can call out sexism and inappropriate behaviour. Hopeful that we can change the judicial system to make it easier for the victim and to increase the prosecution rate. Hopeful we can properly punish offenders. Hopeful we can eradicate the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. Hopeful we can raise a generation of strong women and respectful men. Hopeful the gap between men and women will disappear. Hopeful I can get to a place of peace with my story.
I’m hopeful many of you can’t identify with my story. Hopeful that the people reading this are not fellow survivors. I’m hopeful my story will prompt you to think about your actions, how you treat others, about consent and respect and the consequences of not having this. I’m hoping my story will prompt you to challenge inappropriate behaviour. I’m hoping my story will help you understand the importance of raising our children to respect others and understand consent. I’m hoping my story will make you understand that what seems like quite a minor experience can have such profound and long lasting negative effects. I’m hopeful my experience can make a difference and stop others experiencing the horrific rollercoaster of being a survivor. Hopeful things will be different for my children. I’m still healing, but I’m hopeful.
Today, a friend sent me a screenshot of an Instagram story from a mutual acquaintance. It was a rambling tirade which detailed views on what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. It is a baffling, waffly account which seems to imply that women are ‘naturally designed’ to not take risks, instead we are undisciplined, weak, and lazy. It rails against the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ as another attack on men designed to undermine them, to give them an excuse for laziness and to ‘attach [themselves] to feminine traits’.
So here is my open letter as a response, because I want to set a few things straight.
Understandably, several of my female friends had a lot to say on the subject of your Instagram story, and the views which you obviously agree with. They
are an inspiring group of women, and each of them, in their own ways, is strong, successful, and extremely capable. All of us are breaking into industries that have historically been dominated by men. When I tried to come up with ways in which to describe these amazing women the words ‘inspiring’, ‘dedicated’, ‘intelligent’, ‘bold’, and ‘unwavering’ came to mind. These are not ‘gendered’ traits.
What even is a gendered trait? ‘Sassy’ and ‘bossy’ are words usually employed describe women. What is a bossy woman? Someone who takes charge? Someone who knows her own mind? Someone who is capable and strong? Why, in 2018, are we still using gendered terms to describe personality traits found in all genders? Why does ‘bossy’ seem to have a negative connotation?
Why are men supposed to be strong? Dedicated? Driven? Why are these supposedly ‘masculine traits’? Is a single mother, a female judge, a female academic, a female doctor, producer, costumer, activist, MP, businesswoman, retail employee, nurse, carer, or human rights lawyer not strong? Are they not dedicated, hard-working, or driven?
Toxic masculinity does exist and it is harmful for everyone. It is one of the reasons why, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 35. The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is not an attack on men. It is an attack on the stereotypes that society forces on to men. Why is it seen as feminine to cry? Why is the implication of this that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness? It is not a sign of weakness. It’s just being human.
I am continually baffled that some people, of any gender, seem to think that feminism is an inherent attack on men. Feminism, at least of the type to which I subscribe, is about gender equality. It’s about standing up for everyone. It’s about bodily autonomy, it’s about equal opportunities, and it’s about not being told you should be one way or another just because of your gender.
And the sad and frustrating fact is that people who identify as female do not have some basic human rights. In this country, if I become pregnant as a result of rape, and I terminate that pregnancy, I could face more time in jail than my rapist. This is, of course, if my case against him even goes to trial. I cannot make basic decisions about my own body. And I am called ‘bossy’, ‘hysterical’, or ‘feisty’ when I try to raise my voice and speak out against the injustices I face.
When I walk alone at night, I clutch my keys in my fist. I check over my shoulder every few meters. I pick up my pace when I hear people behind me, or see them on the other side of the street. I walk in well-lit areas, I park in well-lit areas and I lock my car doors as soon as I get in. I have even second-guessed the really cute skirt I’ve just put on.
I don’t make eye-contact with men on the street, because if I do I’ll sometimes be told to ‘smile’. Why do you think I’m so angry? Why do think that I don’t want to give him a smile? Why am I a street decoration? An ornamental flower pot. When men so regularly touch women without our permission is it any wonder we might not want to smile at them? Because if we do, they might see that as an invitation.
I am sick of pandering. I am sick of adding the caveat ‘not all men’. Of course it’s not all men. I am sick of having to say ‘no, I’m not a man-hater’. I am sick of saying ‘I know people have it much worse than I do’. Of course they do. But why does that make my struggle, my walk home, my lack of bodily anatomy a ‘non-issue’. It’s a big issue because it’s a very common issue. I am sick of saying sorry.
I’m not sorry for raising my voice. I am not sorry for taking to the streets to demand my rights. I am not sorry for not smiling, for feeling uncomfortable in situations where I do not feel safe, for not making eye-contact, for not striking up conversation on the street, for voicing my own bloody opinions.
I don’t understand why you would describe men as ‘naturally designed to be disciplined…and work hard’. What does that say about how you view women? You might see me a weak, lazy, undisciplined baby-factory. Who is supposed to give up a career, who should not being pursuing a PhD because one day I’ll be a mother. Why is that my life? Just because of some accident of birth that gave me a vagina rather than a penis? Why would you be naturally more dedicated, capable, and driven than my friends and I? You are not.
We are not weak. We are not lazy. We are not undisciplined.
Can we just stop with the whole ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits? Can we all just be people? Regardless of gender, or anything else? How can a set of traits define half the population of the world? It just does not make sense. If men strive to be more masculine because they see traditionally ‘feminine’ traits as inherently bad then this is toxic masculinity and it is as harmful to you as it is to me.
I ask you to open your eyes. Look around you. Really look. By perpetuating these ideas of what it means to be a man, you are also saying what you think it means to be a woman. Look at the women in your life and see if your argument stands up. I bet it won’t.
A ‘bossy’, ‘feisty’ woman.
Blog by Lauren Rose Browne
With the current international media focus on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the accusations of sexual abuse made against him by 3 women, it is time to remind ourselves again of our obligation as feminists to step outside of party political agendas, wherever abuse occurs, and to offer our support to women survivors of all political stripes.
Máiría Cahill is a survivor, and we believe her.
In recent years our understanding of violence against women, such as sexual abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV), has expanded to include the concept of coercive control. Legislation that reflects this key dynamic in these abusive circumstances has been in force in Great Britain since 2015 but has been stalled in Northern Ireland due to the collapse of the Executive. Even in cases of sexual assault and rape where there is no intimate relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, it has long been understood that these crimes are primarily about control and an abuse of power.
When you consider then the community dynamics present here throughout the conflict and beyond into the ‘post-agreement’ era, issues of power and control take on a huge significance through the presence of political, state, paramilitary and social movement organisations that bore high levels of influence within communities and families. Ground-breaking research in 1992 undertaken by Monica McWilliams and colleagues at the University of Ulster looked in depth at the ways that violence against women has been shaped due to ‘the Troubles’. A recently updated version of the research was published just last week making comparisons between the data gathered in 1992 and data collected in 2016.
The 1992 study detailed how ‘membership of paramilitary/armed groups increased the level of power, control and impunity available to perpetrators of IPV; how the increased availability of legal and illegal firearms increased the risk to and threat felt by victims of IPV; and how the conflict affected police responsiveness to IPV.’ Despite it having been 2 decades since the official cessation of violence in Northern Ireland, 17% of participants in the 2016 study said that their partners had ‘used paramilitary connections or alleged paramilitary connections to threaten, control and/or abuse them.’
The study also highlights the use of paramilitary control to informally ‘police’ domestic violence by making threats to perpetrators. However, the 1992 data revealed how this often made things worse for women as they were concerned that ‘perpetrators were being recruited as police informers to avoid prosecution or enforcement orders for IPV’ thus ensuring women were even more alienated from being able to get protection from or justice for the crimes committed against them.
Anecdotal evidence from women involved in rape and sexual violence services throughout the troubles suggests that Máiría Cahill’s description of the ‘kangaroo court’ she was subjected to following her disclosure to leaders within her community, was something many women would have been familiar with.
It shouldn’t have to be said but the kind of process that Máiría was put through by members of the republican movement is a completely unacceptable course of action for any organisation or community to undertake when someone comes to them with a disclosure of sexual abuse. The fact that Máiría was a child at the time the abuse took place makes it even more abhorrent. Making someone face their abuser in this way, demanding she recount her experience in front of him and trying to judge the authenticity of her account is not only re-traumatising; it serves to add unnecessary new trauma and fear. This kind of practice leads to injustice and the silencing of women whose testimony deserves and needs to be heard. Every person who was involved in that process in the Máiría Cahill case should be ashamed of their actions.
The current dynamics of power and control in communities might not look like they did in the 1990s. The presence of firearms has greatly reduced on all sides and organisations might be more concerned with controlling their media messaging than anything more sinister. However, it is still extremely difficult for any woman to speak out about powerful or influential individuals who harmed them.
Máiría Cahill must be commended for the way she has fought for the truth. She has been vindicated by both the Starmer report into the failings of the Public Prosecution Service and more recently the Police Ombudsman’s report into the actions of the PSNI. The apologies she has received from the heads of both public organisations have satisfied her that they accept all the accusations levelled at them and understand that they let her down.
This response stands in stark contrast to that of the leadership of Sinn Fein, whose response has been widely criticised in the media and on social media, by journalists, commentators, activists and political representatives. Mary Lou MacDonald and Michelle O’Neill have stuck to a conservatively pitched apology stating that Sinn Fein now has robust mandatory reporting procedures and they are sorry the party ‘didn’t have those procedures in place’ at the time of Máiría Cahill’s disclosure. This seems woefully inadequate when you consider the level of harm that an interrogation by powerful leaders within your community is likely to cause any individual. We know too much about the mishandling of abuse from numerous institutions in the last decade to accept such a blasé dismissal of responsibility. What would be more appropriate would be a proactive commitment to examining everything that led people to believe such behaviour was an acceptable way to deal with a young woman in 2000 and ensuring that any trace of such attitudes has been completely eradicated.
When Michelle O’Neill made the statement ‘It’s not for me to say that I believe her’ in response to a question by a BBC journalist earlier in the week, the feminist movement here let out a collective gasp of disapproval. In the face of such conclusive evidence from both the Starmer report and the Ombudsman’s report that Máiría Cahill has been nothing but honest about what happened to her, it seems nonsensical for the leadership of Sinn Fein not to accept her accusations. It also seems extremely out of step with the post ‘me too’ era, at a time when the public is waking up to the fact that this kind of sexual abuse and harassment of women is extremely widespread, pervasive and for too long has not been believed. ‘I believe her’ has become a rallying call for women who won’t be silent anymore when we see this level of injustice and we watch with disappointment those who are reluctant to make this call on behalf of Máiría Cahill.
There are brilliant, committed feminists in all political parties in Northern Ireland and many passionate elected representatives of all political backgrounds that we in the women’s movement continuously work with on issues that affect women’s lives. We hope that those same people will have the freedom to speak up on behalf of themselves and women they know when power and inequality tells them they should stay quiet. We hope the women’s movement will be somewhere they will always know they can get support as they seek to do that. But most importantly, we will stand with victims and survivors of violence against women and strive to support, show solidarity and amplify their voices.
Kellie Turtle and Elaine Crory, Women’s Resource and Development Agency. Kellie and Elaine are also activists with grassroots feminist organisations Belfast Feminist Network, Alliance for Choice, Reclaim the Night, Rally for Choice and Reclaim the Agenda.
Bold Women Blogging is a public submission blog. Posts do not necessarily represent the views of WRDA but rather operates as a platform for open discussion to encourage women’s participation in social and political issues.
Recent news has been dominated by Northern Ireland’s record-breaking period without a government and the terrible fire in Primark in Belfast City Centre, as well as the now-normal barrage of Trump and Brexit bad news. While all of this is undoubtedly real, serious stuff and deserving of our attention, sometimes it can feel that there’s too much of this to deal with, especially when we all have a whole glut of our own concerns to attend to as well. Many of us might be feeling a little downhearted as we wave goodbye to the summer and get ready for back to school, so this blog is going to attempt to provide a little distraction from the worries of day-to-day life over the course of Monday evening with a short list of suggestions of mood-lifters that might help us all to recharge.
#1 A Book – Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
“One of the most unusual and thought-provoking heroines of recent contemporary fiction” Irish Times
“Hugely original, a funny and sad tale of a survivor who tackles the challenges of emotional reconnection with grave courage. Unmissable” Sunday Express
A few of us in the office have recently had the joy of reading this lovely book. I read it myself when I was feeling in a bit of a funk and it really made me feel better about the world. The characters feel real and seeing Eleanor journey out of loneliness and find that she has the power to change her place in the world and to enjoy being part of a community in a way she hadn’t thought possible really challenges the feeling that the world is just a big, bad place. The whole thing feels like a tribute to human kindness, and the real hope and power that exists in all of our relationships.
Note, Eleanor Oliphant does go to dark places before it comes back to the light, and the book deals with themes of child abuse, alcoholism and depression and suicide, so it might not be for you.
If you’ve already read, and hopefully enjoyed Eleanor’s story, Waterstones recommends these if you’re in the mood for something similar.
#2 Meet a Friend – Get hold of a pal, maybe someone you haven’t seen in a while, whether in person or on the phone. It could be for a quick catch-up, or you could spend hours gabbing and putting the world to rights, either way, it’s always nice to make a connection and let somebody know you’re thinking of them, and have someone listen to you too. If you’re in or around the Belfast area it’s a great opportunity to get back into the city and show solidarity with all the retailers who have been experiencing a decreased footfall after the Primark fire too, though do be aware that the air quality isn’t great after the fire and if you’re sensitive to this or have respiratory problems you might be best to avoid the area. Many of Belfast’s shops are open to 9pm on Thursday so a perfect way to beat mid-week blues!
#3 Positive News – These days we’re all connected to the 24 hour news machine pretty much all the time, in our houses, offices and pockets, and sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by the negativity in the reporting. If you need something to shift your perspective and open your eyes to all the good things that are happening, have a look at Positive News, “good journalism about good things”. You can subscribe to their quarterly magazine, become a supporter, or read many free articles on the website. The whole project is based around the idea that too much bad news isn’t good for us and it might be just what you need to see to feel a little better about the world this week.
Media has a powerful influence on our world. We believe excessive negativity in the press is destructive for society, and instead we are working to create a more constructive and compassionate media. Positive News
#4 Podcasts, Audiobooks and Music – The Positivity Playlist
One of the many great things about music, audiobooks and podcasts is that they’re a mood lifter that you can fit in anywhere, you can have your headphones in or the radio on while you’re doing your grocery shopping, driving, or just standing in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, and it can always put a smile on your face.
In aid of a happy week for all of us, we’ve put together a Playlist of songs and artists that lift our mood, some have a positive message, some are nostalgic, and some are just great for a dance – hopefully you’ll find something here to brighten your day, and if not, you can always do your own version – and be sure to share it with us on social media!
Here’s to a mood-boosting week for all of us! Feels like it’s about time…
Finally, I want to make it clear that we aren’t trying to patronise anybody, these things are intended only as friendly suggestions to perk up your start to the week and distract from daily life stresses. There are plenty of us out there who might need more than this. If that’s you, there is absolutely no shame in seeking the help you need, and there are people and organisations who can help you, whatever your situation.
PIPS – 0800 088 6042
PIPS Charity have an open door policy no appointment is needed just come along for a chat a cuppa a friendly face to help you through your trauma or worry or just having a bad day, whatever, we will be there to help.
Lifeline – 0808 808 8000
Women’s Aid – 0808 2000 247
GenderJam – 028 90 996 819
LGBT Switchboard – 0808 8000 390
CAMPAIGNERS FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND EQUALITY SPEAK OUT ABOUT THE IMPACT OF STORMONT STALEMATE.
The results of a survey released today by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency reveal the impact of having no government at Stormont on women’s community organisations and campaign groups.
80% of those surveyed said they have continued to lobby decision makers in the 19 months since the collapse of the Executive, but the majority felt that it is now much harder to make progress on the issues that affect their organisations and communities.
The 48 respondents to the survey represent community based women’s centres, regional umbrella organisations, activist groups, specialist service providers and other types of organisations such as trade unions, carers’ groups and arts organisations.
When asked to rate the extent to which they felt the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly had damaged the work of the women’s sector, the majority felt that it has been ‘extremely damaging’.
The most common issues that the women’s sector continues to lobby on are funding for women’s services, legislation on domestic and sexual violence and progressing the inclusion of women in politics and peacebuilding. Other issues of concern were the impact of welfare reform on women, childcare provision and abortion law and access.
MLAs Ranked Most Effective
However when asked what they think the most effective avenues are for lobbying in the current political situation, the majority put MLAs at the top of the list. This was very closely followed by councillors. It is clear that political representatives are still working on behalf of the people, however, comments from the survey confirm that the real problem is their lack of decision-making power.
“MLA’s are supporting groups at a local level. Civil servants are working to move projects forward. The deadlock comes when a budget or approval decision is required and the project or request stalls.”
While a significant number of respondents highlighted that civil servants or council officials can be effective at progressing issues, there are severe barriers caused by their lack of authority to make key decisions.
“I had a negative experience lobbying civil servants on funding for our services. Due to the absence of a functioning executive, the Department could only confirm funding 3 days before the end of the financial year. We’ve had people on redundancy notice for months now.”
The survey also revealed that very few campaigners in the women’s sector think that lobbying MPs is an effective way to get decisions made, with only 4% of respondents ranking MPs as their first choice.
“Lobbying without an executive is an echo chamber. MP’s see all issues as devolved even though we have no functioning govt.”
“Went directly to an MP and I was appalled at their lack of awareness of our issues. There has been no follow up response despite the fact it was promised. I am disappointed, but not surprised.”
Respondents to the survey spoke of the urgency with which they believe law, policy and services that affect women’s lives need to be dealt with. The impact of austerity and changes to the welfare system was the most commonly mentioned area of concern. The lack of a childcare strategy or any policy to make childcare more affordable and accessible was the next most common priority issue, followed by funding for community based women’s services often located in areas suffering the highest levels of deprivation. Abortion law reform and domestic abuse protections like the stalled coercive control and stalking laws were next on the list.
There were a range of views as to how best to solve these pressing issues with some advocating a return to the Stormont institutions as quickly as possible while others felt that more could be achieved under direct rule or that fresh elections would be needed to see progress.
There is clearly a high level of concern in women’s organisations about the growing backlog of issues that require either legislative or spending decisions to be made. As one respondent summarises:
“We need to get Stormont functioning again in a sustainable way so as to legislate for universal childcare, abortion rights, domestic violence and stalking legislation, deal with the welfare mitigation policies which will be coming to an end, develop a gender equality strategy, encourage more women into politics, improve mental health services and to help prepare us for Brexit and mitigate against any negative impacts of Brexit.”
However, with a number of respondents also highlighting that issues like equal marriage, abortion law, and dealing with the legacy of the past are central to ensuring the sustainability of future government here, it is clear that the women’s movement is not saying ‘Stormont at any cost’. The survey also highlights that many in this sector did not feel much was being done to progress issues of women’s rights and equality before the Executive collapsed and do not wish to see a return to the status quo.
“The key priority is to get gender sensitive policies in place to begin with, and this requires both an understanding and a willingness to take action. Unfortunately the evidence is that even while the institutions were in place, the priority given to women’s issues was low.”
For many of us, prior to the #metoo movement, speaking out about our own personal encounters with sexism and abuse across many sectors felt taboo. It was often frowned upon to speak up and outwards against this kind of behaviour that has been accepted for decades. Women are often shunned into silence, and made to feel worth less than how much they are actually worth. This is not a piece to man shame or blame anyone for anything, other than to highlight the kind of behaviour some women face in the hospitality industry.
From the age of 15, I have always been the people pleaser but I have been bullied since I was young and defenceless for bizarre details such as my hairstyles, not having the latest backpack or because I had braces. Those things stick with you, and even now at the age of 25 when someone comments on my appearance I shrivel back into my shell of feeling powerless and unprotected. As I moved up throughout my professional career, I always sought out a working environment in which I felt safe and looked after. I’ve matured into a much more confident and social type of woman, bubbly with conversation, speaking to strangers and building friendships always came as a second nature.
When I entered the world of hospitality nearly 3 years ago, the buzzing nightlife and fast paced environment was next to none, the freeing feeling of listening to fascinating stories from different people from various walks of life, felt inspired. I often worked long hours, and even longer shifts but with a twinkle in my eye and pep in my step because this type of work never got boring for me. Someone new every day to speak to and swap stories, which was very much appreciated, I had a smile on my face for the world to see. Like most women before me, the odd comment from drunken men isn’t enough to make us feel unnerved, I shrugged off the lingering feeling that filled my entire being and replied simply with a weakened smile “thank you”.
This has become a repeated pattern, what began as flattery has turned sour, at lightning speed. Standing behind a bar, serving drinks at a click of fingers, I began to slowly but surely withdraw back into my shell, my safe haven. I regressed and became the tight lipped girl I once was throughout my teenage years. When I first began working in the hospitality sector I showed up for work neatly presented in a clean cut uniform, fresh hair and a light touch of make up to cover some dark circles and a soft touch of highlight to brighten my complexion. As the feminist in me would say, regardless of dress code, make up or hairstyle, I was not “asking for it”. I did not ask for the glances, the winks, the disgusting comments on my shape or size.
A survey in February 2018 found that almost 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. The survey, created by the non profit group ‘Stop Street Harassment’, also found out the locations of such harassment. Not surprisingly 35% of these experiences happened within the work place. These figures suggest that workplaces are not safe spaces for women, and not only for bar staff like myself, it is a global pandemic.
My eyes have been opened to the kind of abuse women receive while in the work place, as well as the problem of sexism. The comments grew more frequent and during one incident a member of the public placed their hands on me in a upsetting fashion – I knew it was time to find my voice. The voice I have had in my soul all my life ignited throughout my being and I emerged from my shell, with my head held high and ready to make a change within my work environment. In the past, I would have let an incident like this slide, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had enough of the staring, snide remarks and this was a step too far. I thought I would be met with scoffs and anger but the response I got when I spoke out against this behaviour was a warm, welcoming one. The perpetrator was put in their place and removed from the premises and since then they have stayed well clear from me as requested.
I felt like myself again, the confident woman I always have been, on the journey to rebuke these actions from certain individuals, to stand proudly as a strong woman who sets boundaries and will not take any ill action. While this experience wasn’t the most pleasant, it was an eye opening part of my career in hospitality that I have learned from. This has instilled in me my own core values that I must practice each day and remind myself to stand up and more importantly speak out against such behaviour. The compliments, and the pet names and staring, may seem harmless and “just giving you a compliment” but it is also vital to remember it is not necessary. The impact this can have on a person’s mental health and well being while at work is often detrimental. I often felt like a spectacle for the male gaze, I changed my appearance and often came to work without any make up or fresh hair because I was afraid of being preyed upon by the next male that entered the bar. The fear was what made me not want to come to work, often hiding out the back and being short with new comers to avoid any sort of unwanted attention. Flash-forward months later and the fear and dread of such behaviour has disappeared. I have come back stronger to my work place with my shoulders back and voice confident. I am able to handle any situation, I continue on, more powerful than ever.
This piece is by Caitlain Rafferety. Follow her on Twitter @Crafferty11
The Women’s Resource and Development Agency has been successful in winning a grant award of £41382.44 over two years from The Community Relations Council. The Women’s Resource and Development Agency is one of 32 organisations receiving funding to support and deliver peacebuilding activity.
The Community Relations Council, through its Core Funding Scheme, has announced that it will be supporting a total of 32 organisations for the 2018/19 period to the value of £1,276,000.
This investment will support peacebuilding activities in nearly 400 locations with over 35,000 participants in the next year alone. The work ranges from sports based programmes, theatre performances, anti-sectarian training, residential conferences as well as programmes with interface communities.
Opening the launch event at CRC Offices, CRC Chair Peter Osborne said;
“This society needs to value more those who build peace. It needs to recognise and respect the work that the peace builders do. It is difficult work, sometimes dangerous and often thankless.
At a time when political stagnation may define this peace process if we let it, we should acknowledge that peace building is about more than institutions and structures. It is mainly about relationships.
Building those positive relationships at community level, worked at day and daily by core-funded groups, are what might push peace up the Hill. It is the community that held this place together during the darkest days; it is community that can continue to drive the peace process.
The Community Relations Council and The Executive Office, with the groups supported through the Core Funding programme, deliver a range of interventions throughout Northern Ireland, diversionary programmes, mediation, capacity raising and relational development. This programme represents real value for money and is critical in helping this society understand that there is much more that unites us than divides us.”
Grainne Killen, Director Of Good Relations and T:BUC at The Executive Office said;
“The Community Relations Council Core Funding Scheme funded by The Executive Office supports the back-bone of much community relations activity here and makes a real and meaningful difference in the delivery of the Executive’s good relations policy, including the implementation of the aims and objectives of the Together: Building a United Community strategy. The 32 groups from across Northern Ireland receiving this funding show a real commitment to building a shared and safe community, that supports cultural expression and makes a real contribution to the future for our children and young people.”
Two organisations entering the scheme for the first time are Springboard and the Londonderry Bands Forum. Both spoke at the launch event.
Springboard Director Angila Chada said that;
“We are delighted to receive this highly valued support from CRC, which will enable us to work alongside individuals from diverse communities to help realise their potential and contribute to building a shared, united and more cohesive society”.
Derek Moore from the Londonderry Bands Forum also speaking at the event explained:
“Support from CRC will enable us to compliment and expand on the ground-breaking work that has brought us to prominence both locally and nationally over the past few years. This new opportunity will allow us to drive forward as chair of the North West Cultural Partnership, six independent groups with a like-minded vision. We see this as an essential link to all political parties and views, given the standing of the group and the unfortunate current stalemate at government level.”
For further information contact Paul Jordan at CRC 028 9022 7500 email@example.com
The Community Relations Council (CRC) is an Arms Length Body (ALB) of The Executive Office.
CRC is a key delivery agent for departmental good relations policy, including the implementation of the aims and objectives of the T:BUC strategy.
One programme managed by CRC is the Core Funding Scheme. This funding provides support for organisations which are considered of strategic importance in promoting community relations work across Northern Ireland. The scheme contributes towards salary and organisational running costs.
Core Funded Organisations
An Gaeláras Limited
Building Communities Resource Centre (BCRC)
Community Relations Forum Ltd
Community Relations in Schools
East Belfast Mission
Falls Community Council
Falls Women’s Centre
Institute of Conflict Research
Irish School of Ecumenics
Londonderry Bands Forum
North West Play Resource Centre
PeacePlayers International Northern Ireland
Reconciliation, Education and Community Training (REACT)
Rural Community Network (RCN)
Shankill Parish Caring Association
Shankill Women’s Centre
Springboard Opportunities Ltd
St Columb’s Park House
The Churches Trust
The Junction/Holywell Trust
Women’s Information Northern Ireland
Women’s Resource and Development Agency
Youth Link NI